Learning Rich Experiences

In The Learning Rich Classroom post, I outlined what I notice to be three impediments in creating a learning rich classroom. Namely, curriculum, standardization and bureaucracy, and poorly implemented technology integration. However, after being inspired by Kim Cofino’s Designing Learning Experiences, I too was thinking I could expound a little more not only on the characteristics that hinder learning rich experiences, but those that help as well!

When I try to create learning rich experiences, I always think back to myself as a student. The times that left an impression on me was when I was actually doing something like choosing to play basketball during potpourri Friday’s in PE class or learning how to breath and find my center in drama class. I can’t help but recognize that I never valued traditional class settings. I have no fond memories of sitting at a desk or answering questions from a textbook either.

The difference to creating learning rich experiences is the immersion, the feeling of being impacted or changed by an event. The difference is the experience.

So how do we create experiences that will actually impact, augment, immerse and create deep learning?

Here’s a quick list:

  • Get rid of the scripted lesson plans – make it relevant to your class and your individual students
  • Stop delineating between subject areas – let them marry and mesh in trans-curricular environments
  • Empower students as active contributors and creators of the classroom environment rather than passive participants
  • Create meaningful and immersive experiences…but how?

Creating Experiences

Kim stated in her post, that designing learning experiences are “one of the most fun ways to really geek out about learning.” She’s right! This really is the fun part. It’s also one of the harder parts. Kim notes that we need to connect the big idea to personal experience of the learner and provide time to personalize the content. These are the two steps of her Designing Learning Experiences that I would like to focus on in this post. After recognizing how I learn, I am most intent on creating experiences that both defy the traditional classroom setting and connect to the learner personally. Some of these learning rich experiences may come in the form of simulations, mock-events, immersive activities or some other orchestrated experience that is meant to create a transformational learning experience. I will share a few examples and hope that there may be some lessons within.

The Video and Spider-Web Discussion that Started it all!

In Education is… which was my first post on my CoETaIL blog, I explained an event in my classroom that I draw connections to all facets of my educational philosophy. Specifically, I outlined the experience my students and I had after watching If Students Designed Their Own Schools.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 8.08.12 PM“In this video, students showcased their involvement in their education from the development of the curriculum, creation of the content and manifestation of daily schedules, routines and workflow’s. The final slide in the video shared the quote by William Butler Yeats which states, “Education is not the filling of a pail, it is the lighting of a fire!”  (excerpt from Education Is… post)

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 8.15.40 PMAfter the video we paused on the Yeats quote, and started a Spider-Web Discussion that inspired many learning rich experiences. We decided to create a huge collective and interactive “fire” mural that helped to document every time the students owned their own learning. We borrowed the ideas of collective and individual endeavors from the video. We unpacked the quote so that we all understood the importance of students being active players in the classroom and that the role of the teacher is not to simply funnel content into their students heads, but to help them ignite the desire and curiosity to learn continuously, interdependently and independently.

It is from this experience that I then created my learning philosophy, Spark iLearning, which focuses on student’s individual interests, imagination, innovation and independent learning journey. Doesn’t that seem like the most important thing we can possibly inculcate within our students?

The Gender Experiment

Another example of a learning rich experience was during a social studies unit we called People vs. People, in which we studied sociological conflict and conflict resolution. The teachers and I decided that we would create a week long gender experiment amongst our classes that would hopefully culminate in a deep learning experience about the importance of gender equality and also to discover the signs and motivation for conflict and the steps to resolve such conflict along the way. In a nutshell, we instigated a conflict between the genders on purpose and carried out a sociological experiment likened to the Milgram and Stanford authority experiments of the 1970’s or the Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes Experiment created by Jane Elliot. Yes, we lied. Yes, we introduced conflict purposefully into our classrooms. Yet, it was a learning rich experience! It will take too long to fully describe in this post but please read my blog post about it titled, Social Experiment, if you want to find out more or listen to the culmination of the conflict which I covertly caught on the recording below.

The Lego Smash

On final example of a learning rich experience occurred this passed school year as student issues and conflicts surrounding the game Clash Royale began to peak. Students were using the chat inappropriately and they were kicking people in and out of their clan with reckless abandon. It bubbled up to become such an issue that the administration decided to email all the Grade 4 parents a few notes about the game. In particular, that the game age limit is older than the age of their kids and the language that they may be exposed to while playing the game. As you can imagine, many parents deleted the game from the student iPads and one student in particular decided to email the principle explaining just how mad they were. Crazy right!?!

Anyways, long story short. I was asked to speak to all Grade 4 students about this issue as the Technology Integration Coach. If we were to refer to Kim’s 9 Steps, this issue or “content” would be the first step to designing a learning experience and finding a way to connect to the personal experience of the students would be the second step.

I decided that I would create a lesson that would address many of the digital citizenship issues we were having in our school not only about Clash Royale but also about Minecraft and the importance of developing a digital conscience. However, I realized that just going into their classrooms and spewing off the importance of digital citizenship would not work any more than the other lessons they had previously on the topic, which clearly didn’t rub off…

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 9.41.45 PMI knew I had to make an impression on them. I waited a few weeks after the Clash Royale issue to settle down a little and then went into the classes under the pretense of a different type of lesson. I created a cover slide titled, “The Benefits of Minecraft” which got them all excited. To really seal the deal I invited a different 1st Grader for each class to make a structure that they were proud of and would like to show off to the Grade 4 students and highlight their creativity and Master Builder status (Lego Movie reference). DISCLAIMER: The 1st Grade students were aware of the purpose and all the facets of the experiment the whole time.

So, I started the lesson by asking the kids to sit in a circle and then I asked the 1st Grader to share why they loved their building or structure. I then asked the 4th Graders if they had any questions. The 4th Graders were very empathetic and knew this must be hard for a 1st Grader to be surrounded by older kids. They asked questions like how long it took to build and the like… It all seemed to set the stage quite well. The 4th Graders were clearly distracted enough by the 1st Grader, the title slide and the intro that Lego and Minecraft are both are great for becoming Master Builders that I knew I could ramp things up…

That’s when I asked them, “Does anyone want to break it?”

Immediately, the students switched and 1/3 postured intently that they wanted to break it. When they asked further, I directed them to ask the 1st Grader who promptly said, “No!” as planned. I continued to egg on the 4th Graders about whether they wanted to break it though and the 1st Grader kept on saying “No!” I could tell that the 4th Graders felt confused, which I expected knowing what I know about these authority experiments. In all 5 classes, I noticed that students would intervene to dissuade the really motivated individuals by explaining to them how inappropriate that it would be to break the 1st Grader’s creation or sometimes they even, physically held their peers hands back. In only 1 class however, did a student follow through with the act and broke the students structure. In all other classes, I would get them settled and get their attention and then I would break it. In either case, the 1st Grader acted accordingly and hung their head low and acted sad. Once the class eruption settled down again, I asked the 1st Grader if there was anything that they wanted to say. To which they said, “It doesn’t matter whether your online or in person, it’s not ok to break someone’s creative work!”

The 4th Grade students were had by a 1st Grader and myself. I did lie. I did misrepresent the situation and the lesson. It was an experiment and judging by the reactions of the students during the lego smash, I know that this became a personal experience for them too.

You can imagine what happened after the scheme was revealed, we could discuss the issues and the content that was meant to be addressed. However, after the experience, the students were more acutely aware of the gravity of their actions. Check the slides below for more details about the lesson:

Smoke and Mirrors

So to me I feel that designing learning experiences, specifically ones that connect to the students are the most vital of any lesson. Furthermore, getting to that point we sometimes need to be magicians or conductors of learning to help to facilitate this transformational process. And for the record, I think a little smoke and mirrors when creating, facilitating and instigating these experiences are totally within our jurisdiction as educators. You?

2 Responses

  1. Uzay Ashton says:

    Hi Sean,
    Thanks for posting. You’ve brought up some very relevant points, especially when it comes to creating deep learning in our students. The quick list you’ve provided can certainly work with some classes, but I thought about the classes I currently have and wondered if maybe a balance needs to be struck. For instance, my lesson plans are scripted (in my head, at least) but I try to balance out what I want them to learn with how it can be relevant to their lives. When you are working in a class full of IB or IGCSE students, it’s not always possible to go off script because there is a set curriculum that needs to be learned before students can begin their internal or external assessments. I’m not implying that we teach to the test, but it is a real struggle I think many teachers face. We all want our students to have interdisciplinary lessons that naturally meld into one another, but unfortunately, it’s not always possible. Do you have any suggestions as to how this can be done at the high school level?

    Thanks for your time. Cheers!

    Uzay

    • Profile photo of Sean Sean says:

      Hey Uzay,

      Thanks for your comment and your prompts to explain further… I totally understand that sometimes I go too quick to extremes and can often forget to balance out the vision with the reality of the education system, which as you say, follows a curriculum and has assessments and a pre-determined path.

      I don’t think the extreme to which I am advocating for and the current realities of our educational institutions can marry and mesh into a cohesive balance, however. I think they are diametrically opposed and I think it’s the institution, standardization and structure that make it all too impossible to truly create intrinsically motivated and self-directed students and truly rich learning experiences.

      Of course, we can make a lesson plan, whether on paper, Google Docs, or in our heads but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to become a learning rich experience. I was referring to these one-sized fits all curricula that lays out your teaching point, your prompts, your active engagements, your chart papers etc. If we create the lesson plans ourselves, which you say you are doing, I am sure that you have taken your students into consideration and tried to make it relevant. However, my argument is that trying as best as we can to make something relevant, doesn’t necessarily make it relevant. Curriculum doesn’t seem to leave room for independent inquiry and self-motivated learning. Nor does it permit the flexibility that all of our teachers and our students really need.

      Your question about the high school level…that has always been the biggest complication in truly transforming our education system. If we are to experiment with alternative theories of teaching and learning in primary and middle school, by the time students get to high school, the perpetuating structure of the system gets repeated because of the inherent structure of high school, grades, college applications and post-secondary institutions. This is why I think the whole thing needs to be overhauled.

      Is there a balance? Is it either or? These are the conundrums that I am perplexed by daily!

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